The Wurst of Wisconsin

There are only two ways to grill a proper Wisconsin brat—the Sheboygan way and the wrong way.

I grew up in Wisconsin, where summer means boats, beer, and brats. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to water lapping the edge of a lake with a name like Nagawicka, Nashotah, or Nemahbin. And I’ve probably gone too long with too little beer to qualify as a real Brew Town native. But my nose will never forget that familiar childhood scent of charcoal grills fired up for the state’s most alluring meat: the bratwurst.

Every now and then I get a hankering for a juicy brat, done the way my dad did it. We Wisconsinites have our way, a particular way known as the Sheboygan method. As the locals would say: “First, ya grill da brats. Den ya soak ‘em in da beer, da butter, an’ da onions.”

My husband didn’t believe me. He’s usually the grill maestro at our house, but he’d always done his brats the way most of America does: soak, then grill.

“Nuh-uh!” I said in the perfectly snotty voice that resurfaced from my teenaged years. Just to prove him wrong, I emailed my mother and asked when to soak the brats.

“AFTER! AFTER! AFTER!” she replied. A lot of recipes call for soaking before, “but you would be shot if you did that in Sheboygan.” (She should know. She and my dad have lived their entire lives in this neck of the Wisconsin woods.) “I have also heard someone say they soak before and after. Talk about overkill!”

The next time we talked by phone, my mother read to me the brat recipe she has kept for many years, clipped from the Milwaukee paper. Basically: Grill the brats over medium heat (preferably charcoal) until deep brown. Do not burn. While brats are cooking, combine in saucepan 2 cans of beer (any type, though some people say the cheaper the better), 1/4 cup butter, and 1 medium onion sliced thinly; simmer. Add cooked brats to beer mixture and cook over low heat 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat but do not remove brats from beer mixture until ready to serve.

There’s one more thing. Apparently, according to my parents, real die-hard Sheboyganites turn their brats with bare hands so as not to break the sausage skin while grilling. (This is, after all, a town with its own annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear dive into frigid Lake Michigan.)

There you have it: the final word on grilling and soaking, Sheboygan style. My mom said so.

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